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United States Supreme Court to rule on drunk-driving tests.

Lyle Denniston

Scotusblog.com

December 11th, 2015

In a move that could have a nationwide effect on the roadside actions of police officers, the Supreme Court agreed on Friday to decide whether a blood or breath test for drunk driving can be made without a search warrant and whether, if there is no warrant, an individual can be charged with a crime for refusing to take such a test.  The Justices took on three cases raising the issue: two from North Dakota and one from Minnesota.  Thirteen states make it a crime to refuse to take a drunk-driving test.

The Court also granted review of three other cases: a plea to clarify when a landowner can sue to challenge a government ruling that a tract of land contains U.S. waters protected from pollution under the Clean Water Act (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co.); a test of whether it violates the federal debt collection laws for lawyers appointed by a state attorney general to collect debts using the attorney general’s official letterhead (Sheriff v. Gillie), and a dispute over whether a prison inmate is excused from attempting administrative remedies for a grievance if the prisoner believed, wrongly, that he had already done so (Ross v. Blake).

The drunk-driving cases provide the Court with something of a sequel to its ruling in 2013 in Missouri v. McNeely, which left the clear impression that, if police have enough time, they should get a warrant before taking a test of a suspected drunk driver.  The Court ruled that the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream does not always amount to an emergency situation that permits a DUI test without a warrant.

In North Dakota, state laws bars a person from driving in the state if he or she refuses to submit to a chemical test, of blood, breath or urine, to determine alcohol concentration.  It makes refusal to take such a test open to prosecution for a crime that carries the same punishment as a conviction for drunk-driving.   In Minnesota, state law makes it a crime to refuse an officer’s request to take a chemical test for alcohol in the blood, if the individual has been validly arrested for drunk driving.  The cases to be reviewed by the Court involve either a blood or breath test.

Lawyers for the three men involved in the appeals said that the issues they were raising were coming up more frequently in the wake of the McNeely decision.  And they argued that the decisions by the state supreme courts in these cases conflict with the McNeely ruling.  The Supreme Court, at its private Conference on Friday, considered thirteen cases on these issues, and chose the three from that list — all filed by the same attorneys.

The three apparently were chosen because they involve different legal scenarios: in two of the cases, the individuals were convicted for declining to take a test — one a blood test, the other a breath test. In the third case, the individual was convicted of drunk driving after he refused field sobriety tests and then was taken to a hospital for a blood test against his wishes.  The Court will be reviewing that individual’s punishment for refusing the field tests — a two-year suspension of his driver’s license — instead of the jail time and fine he got for the drunk-driving conviction.

The three cases to be reviewed are Birchfield v. North Dakota, Bernard v. Minnesota, and Beylund v. North Dakota.  The three will be consolidated, and will be heard together at a one-hour hearing.